WWI soldiers expressed emotion by not swearing

From Bee Wilson’s review of The Littlehampton Libels by Christopher Hilliard:

The Littlehampton Libels by Christopher Hilliard is a short but dazzling work of microhistory. It uses the story of some poison pen letters in a small town to illuminate wider questions of social life in Britain between the wars, from ordinary people’s experience of the legal system to the way people washed their sheets, and is a far more exciting book than either the title or the rather dull cover would suggest. For a short period, the mystery of these letters became a national news story that generated four separate trials and, as Hilliard writes, ‘demanded more from the police and the lawyers than most murders’.

This is a book about morality and class, about the uses and abuses of literacy and about the tremendous dislocations in British society after the First World War, which extended far beyond those who had suffered the direct trauma of battle. Hilliard uses these poison pen letters – written in language that was as eccentric as it was obscene – to ‘catch the accents of the past’. The Littlehampton Libels is about a battle between two women who were members of only the second generation in Britain to benefit from compulsory elementary education, women for whom the written word was a new and exhilarating weapon.

Hilliard asks what it was like to live in a society where ‘nice’ women had to pretend that they were ignorant of all profanity. Melissa Mohr claims in her excellent book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (2013) that the British started to swear more during and after the First World War, because strong language – like strong drink – is a way to alleviate despair. In 1930, John Brophy and Eric Partridge published a collection of British songs and slang from the war. They claimed that soldiers used the word ‘fucking’ so often that it was merely a warning ‘that a noun is coming’. In a normal situation, swear words are used for emphasis, but Brophy and Partridge found that obscenity was so over-used among the military in the Great War that if a soldier wanted to express emotion he wouldn’t swear. ‘Thus if a sergeant said, “Get your —ing rifles!” it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said, “Get your rifles!” there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger.’

 

Britain’s Great War

My latest project is live: Britain’s Great War.

It’s a BBC One series presented by Jeremy Paxman as part of the BBC’s long-running season marking the hundreth anniversary of the First World War.

We made two things to go support the programme:

A free booklet, The First World War Experienced:

Have you ever wondered why you might be wearing a poppy in November, or just how many people fought and died in the First World War?

This free booklet provides a close-up look at some of the experiences of the First World War and its commemoration. It highlights how the war affected soldiers and civilians while it was being fought, as well as once the guns had fallen silent.

And a series of articles (all around the 1,000 word mark) that look in detail at the causes and early stages of the war: in particular the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the July Crisis and the Schlieffen Plan, along with profiles of protagonists and an overview of the historiography of the war.

The booklet and the articles were written by my colleague Annika Mombauer, who I don’t mind telling you I have a total and utter brain-crush on.

I previously knew very little about the First World War, other than the series of terrible band names it bequeathed. My work on the project has opened a door to something that is both fascinating and horrifying yet fundamentally important to who we are today; something I think I could read and read and read about. I’ll be doing that very soon, as I just bought one of her books.

This is one of my final projects working for the Open Media Unit at The Open University. It’s been a delight—more on my next move soon.

Britain’s Great War starts on Monday 27 January at 9pm on BBC One.